David Vann was somewhat extremely surprisingly this week named in the shortlist for the Ockham New Zealand book awards. Steve Braunias, who had never heard of him, tracks down the American author to a boatbuilding yard in California.

I’d never even heard of David Vann until I found out he’d made the shortlist, announced on Wednesday morning, for this year’s Ockham New Zealand book awards. I looked him up and found he was an American who had been living in Taupo Bay in the Far North. He was the author of 10 books. I’d also never heard of his shortlisted novel, Halibut on the Moon, and took an immediate dislike to the title. So pretentious! Plus I was pretty sure there’s no halibut in New Zealand waters. It was at this point that I began to form an irrational dislike for Vann. He was a stranger, an outsider, who had brushed past bona fide Kiwi authors to take his place at New Zealand’s premier literary awards… Like I say, it was an irrational dislike, and of course the only sensible thing to do was to reach out and ask him who he was and what he was all about. We exchanged emails yesterday. He was in California, working on a boat that he intended to sail back home to New Zealand.

What’s your connection to New Zealand? How was it you fished up here in the first place?

In October 2001, my wife and I sank in a freak storm in the Caribbean. The boat was our business and our home. We escaped with only the clothes we were wearing. But losing everything came with a great freedom, and she asked one day, “Top five places: where would you want to live?” 

I thought of Turkey, where we had run charters, and Italy, of course, as everyone would, but I also thought of New Zealand, where my aunt has lived for the past 50 years or so and where my cousin grew up. They had told me stories and sent photos and a picture book about killing a bunch of rabbits with poison carrots. New Zealand seemed wild and remote and alluring. So we applied for residency, which was a long process, and when we first arrived in March 2003, the immigration agent said: “Welcome home.” That was a wonderful start. 

The immigration website said “New Zealand—The Right Choice,” and we kept repeating this for years because it was in fact wonderfully the right choice. Every time we arrived there we liked it even more than the last time.

At first I tried to get a professorship in New Zealand in Creative Writing, but this wasn’t possible. I applied for a job in Auckland but didn’t get an interview.  So I became a professor in Florida and then California, taking semesters off to spend as much time as possible in New Zealand, and then finally was able to no longer have to live at all in the US. I really think Trump is so absurd and disgusting. So I was very happy to leave and never go back and have been away from the US for up to three years without a visit. 

I was able to leave because I was hired as a professor in England. The great thing about the job is that I only have to be there 20 days per year, in October and November. So I’m free to live where I want.

And in 2010 and 2011 my books did well and were published in 23 languages, so I bought land in Taupo Bay in the Far North, overlooking a beautiful beach and headland and islands, and built a small house with the most amazing views, and I loved my life there and owned the house until a little over a year ago, when I had to sell it because my writing income has gone down so much and I could no longer afford the mortgage. This is okay, though. What I realised is that all of New Zealand is heartachingly beautiful, so why live in just one part?  I’m working on my 50-foot aluminum trimaran right now in California – I’ve built it entirely myself, doing all the welding, installing the systems, even building the mast, etc – to sail down to New Zealand, where I can live on it and sail along the entire stunning coastline, seeing all the bays and islands and beaches and small towns tucked away. 

Penny Hartill from the Ockham awards says, “David has been a permanent New Zealand resident for more than 15 years.” Do you in fact have permanent New Zealand residency?

I’ve been a permanent resident since 2003 with an indefinite visa (the term sounds a bit pale but it’s the best one and means you don’t have to leave) since 2005.

Paula Morris from the Ockham awards says, “New Zealand is his permanent home.” Is this correct?

Yes indeed. I plan to retire and die in New Zealand, with hopefully quite a few decades of enjoyment still left before the dying part.  I’m 53 with 10 books published, so it’s hard to cast me as a new, exciting writer, and interest has waned, lol, but I’m still writing every day. 

Finally, a question about your work. You said to a reporter a couple of years back, “I want to write a novel set in New Zealand, but so far I haven’t been able to, and I think it’s because I’ve never struggled in New Zealand. All has been good, without conflict, and drama is born of conflict.” Is this what your book Halibut on the Moon represents – drama, conflict, tragedy?

Halibut On the Moon is about my father’s last visit to all the family in California before going back home to Alaska to kill himself.  The last time my stepmother saw my father, in a hotel in California, he brought his loaded .44 magnum pistol into the room in his toiletries bag. The moment she saw it, she knew it was for her. 

Less than a year earlier, my stepmother had lost her parents to a murder/suicide, her father killed by her mother with a shotgun before she killed herself with a pistol. My father seemed to have a similar plan, to take someone with him. 

In the end, my father killed only himself, alone in Fairbanks, Alaska, but I kept thinking of this loaded pistol in the hotel room.  In the more than 35 years since his death, it had never occurred to me, this possibility of him killing someone else first. I wrote a nonfiction book, Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, about someone who killed five and wounded many others as part of his suicide, but I had never imagined my father capable of this.

And there was another disturbing thing. Everyone feels guilty after a suicide. My father asked me to spend a year in Alaska with him and I said no, then he killed himself after.  It’s an unfair guilt, because life is messy and we all could have done things differently. Survivors need to know it was not their fault, it was the suicide’s choice.

But after 35 years, I had a shift. I knew that he would have stayed alive longer, at least, if I had said yes to spending that year with him. It’s not my fault, but my decision had an effect. 

So Halibut On The Moon was born of two things: the unsettling new idea that he might have considered taking some or one of us with him, and a new desire to consider how we each failed him in the end, a final stage, I hope, of four decades of guilt.

And what you’ve quoted is really true. I have had only good experiences in New Zealand for the past 17 years, and so far I haven’t had any New Zealand tragedy to sink my teeth into for material, and really I hope that never happens.

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Text, $37)

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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